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Authors: Tim Parks

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Europa (21 page)

BOOK: Europa
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CHAPTER NINE

The outrage of obstructed energy. Impulse without fulfilment. Can any Petitions Committee ever right this wrong? Very deliberately on my narrow bed in this nondescript hotel room where at one-thirty or -forty the apparently staid Avvocato Malerba still hasn't returned to his bed, I start to masturbate over Plaster-cast-tottie. I start to masturbate, after my normal fashion. But to do this I have to remember what she looks like. What does she look like? And all I can remember is the unconcealed disappointment in her bright glassy eyes when, rather than remaining behind in the hotel lounge on our return from the
stube
supper, I elected to follow Vikram Griffiths and others out into the night in search of a bar, leaving her and her hobbling plaster-cast behind. I elected to go on this alcohol hunt, I reflect now, because
she
-had elected not to go on it, just as I elected to come on this coach trip because
she
had elected to come on it. Whether I choose to be where she is, or where she isn't, it is always she who governs the choice.

Vikram Griffiths exchanged some words with the sour proprietor, who apparently gave directions as to where we might find a bar open. But Vikram spoke no French and the proprietor did not seem eager that we find this bar. Perhaps he imagined that a fruitless walk in the suburban rain would bring us back respectably sobered. My mind buzzing with the thought that
she did not even remember my age
, which is somehow forgivable between a father and his children, or even between man and wife, but not between the lovers we were, I pushed through the glass door with other students to be pulled aside then by Colin, who confided that he could hardly shag in his room with Saint Barnaby there, could he? The experimental Irish novelist had already twice phoned his wife about a baby with a sore throat. Because our affair was about being a certain age, I told myself. So he would have to go to Tittie-tottie's room, Colin said, where gentlemanly courtesy might just oblige him to shag Tittie-tottie's tottie-mate as well, he laughed. Our affair had to do with age, I was suddenly thinking, as Colin marvelled at the alliteration of Tittie-tottie
'
s tottie-mate. Though she was more the kind of party who was likely to go down well at a charity ball for the blind, Colin laughed. Go down, damn you, he laughed. He gestured with an imaginary cue. How could she miscalculate, I thought, knowing so well, as she must, the exact difference in ages? Charity ball! Colin laughed. Colin brays rather than laughs. Get it? He sneers rather than brays. Tottie-mate would be an excellent title for a centre spread, he said. But there is no evil in Colin, I thought now, reflecting that he too was exactly ten years younger than me. You never feel Colin could harm anybody. Never broach the breach unsheathed, he laughs. And I thought, looked at in a certain way, age was the only truly important factor in our relationship. We would never have had an affair
like that
at a different age,
at different ages
. How could she have thought I was forty-three?

People milled under an awning outside the hotel where wind was sweeping the thin drizzle against carelessly parked cars. Beyond a low hedge lay the road that now sends intermittent light flitting about my room. Vikram Griffiths came out singing
Whisky in the Jar
again, then explaining that he never put his dog on a leash. Never. He laughed, scratching a sideburn, and apparently he had quite forgotten about the question of our representation at the European Parliament, the precariousness of our jobs, his acrimonious court cases back in Italy. With a
studentessa
under each arm of his loose open mac he shouted, Follow me! and made a dash through a gaggle of girls into the phosphor-lit rain. And, still obsessed by the notion that we had loved each other only and exclusively because we were a certain age, I found myself admiring Vikram Griffiths for this, this drunken cavalier carefreeness, and I- envied him. I envied Vikram Griffiths for the way he turns his energy outward to
whatever is available
, whatever woman, whatever amusement, and appears to be satisfied with it, willy-nilly. While I implode. You eat your heart out, I told myself, watching Vikram with a girl under each arm heading towards the glare of oncoming traffic, singing about Captain Farrel and his treacherous Jenny. You eat your heart out and vomit it up, and eat it out all over again. Why have you suddenly become obsessed with this question of age? And I experienced then, so soon after sitting in the coach and hearing
her
talking about the principles of the French Revolution, as if she had never said these things to me before, indeed as if nothing had ever passed between us, as if the earthquake that completely altered my mental landscape had not even been registered on any of the scales properly established for measuring these things, I experienced such a sense of desperation and self-loathing and absurdity that I turned back, on impulse, towards the hotel with the intention, hardly creditable, of venting my rage on Plottie, of simply grabbing the Plottie girl and dragging her, plaster-cast and all, to some secluded corner of the hotel to be thoroughly shagged, as in the past, I suppose, I have vented my rage on Psycho-.tottie and Photo-tottie and Dimple-tottie and others more memorable for their soubriquets than their sentiments. One says one's rage was vented, but the truth is it never was, it was always intact after orgasm, if not magnified, with the added curiosity that these women never felt that any rage had been vented upon them, never imagined anything but affection on my part, even passion, they mistook rage for passion, and so were happy as a rule and spoke eagerly of a next time, as witness Opera-tottie and her generous phone message. One hadn't even been cruel! And this makes matters worse: I mean when every woman is the wrong woman but reminds you of the right woman, when venting is not venting, but reminds one of venting, or of how things were before the notion of venting had even occurred, the time when it was impossible to imagine not having an outlet for the person one had become through being with
her
. And lying in my narrow bed, recalling that moment in the wind-swept carpark when I envied Vikram Griffiths for the ease with which he turns his energy outward to whatever's available, and, as a gut reaction, turned back to vent my forty-five-year-old rage on Plottie, it occurs to me now, here in my hotel room, casting about for an image to masturbate over, that what Picasso's lovers are really seeking in this flat reproduction of their intermittently lit clasping, this miserable simulacrum of a great modern masterpiece that I have been staring at now for upwards of an hour, is themselves again.
They are seeking themselves as they were when they made each other themselves
. Yes, this is something I understand now, as one understands so many things no sooner than it's too late. And I had just turned round to go back to the lighted porch, to go back to the Plottie girl - and through wet sheet glass I could see the Avvocato Malerba deep in conversation with Georg, no doubt discussing the finer points of the legal case I shall tomorrow, incredibly, be presenting to' the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament - when an umbrella burst open in front of me and Nicoletta said, Don't go back. Share my umbrella. And immediately I was elated.

Here then is another bizarre thing: the fact that you were elated when Nicoletta, entirely absent from your thoughts for at least the previous half-hour, now opened her yellow umbrella and invited you under it, immediately slipping her arm into yours, as she had done earlier on in the day climbing the concrete stairs of the Chambersee Service Station. You were elated, over the moon no less, the mental volatility of the perfect lunatic.

Unable to masturbate over Plottie's glassy disappointment, I find myself sitting up in bed again. I'm sitting up shivering in my bed. First you set off, I tell myself, on the trip to the bar because of
her
, then you turn back from the trip to the bar because of Plottie, and finally you set off on the trip to the bar once again because of Nicoletta. You are no more than a ball in a bagatelle, shot for one brief second over the moon. Nicoletta opened her umbrella and invited you under and slipped her arm in yours and immediately you were over the moon. Immediately a voice sang out: You're on here, Jerry! And it sang, There must be something about you today! First Plaster-cast-tottie and now this. Sneaky Niki. Spoilt for choice I am! Thus your own mental rhetoric. In the space of one split second, I tell myself, you went from the most total misery (over 
her
extraordinary miscalculation of your age) to the most gushing exhilaration and optimism. You thought, Love is a movable feast, Jerry, go for it. Thus your criminal naivety. You thought, why should I 
cry over split milk
, and you thought, there is no reason at all why I shouldn't fall in love all over again with this young and beautiful if somewhat flat-chested girl. Thus your asinine presumption. At which juncture, sitting here rigid and shivering on my narrow hotel bed, it has to be said that there can be no hope for a person as absurd as I am, no hope for someone capable of such extraordinary vanity. Though quite what one might mean by hope, I'm not sure; I suppose what
she
meant when she spoke of an analyst being able to save me; or perhaps what Plottie meant when she spoke of some improbable
equilibrio interiore
.

I was under Nicoletta's umbrella. We were striking off on a walkway beside a dual carriageway. Vikram Griffiths was trying to teach his two girls
The Green Green Grass
, explaining in between whiles that before coming to Italy he had never been south of Eastbourne. Nor north of Clwyd if it came to that. Then came a long gaggle of students and lectors under umbrellas and rain-hoods beside a muddy verge with no sign anywhere of any sort of building that might house a bar, though a huge billboard above chasing cars announced
La ville veste les femmes núes
, and at the rear there was myself and Nicoletta, with me wondering, as she spoke of difficulties at home since her father's cancer, whether this was one of those occasions where one would ask for a kiss or simply try to snatch one. Her mother, Nicoletta said, speaking to someone she had only met that morning, a man any woman should have seen had designs on her, had become terribly morose and withdrawn after her father's death and hardly talked, but at the same time she, the mother, tended to get upset if she, Nicoletta, or her twin brother or older sister, went out of an evening, as if they were somehow deserting her. 
Yes, they'll all come to greet me
, came Vikram's voice. Then a peal of laughter.
The green green grass
. And while I began to appreciate, not without a prick of resentment, that the kind of complicity Nicoletta had imagined, on inviting me under her yellow umbrella, was one
oí friendship
, and far from the variety that might require for completion the cordial placement of my cock-piece in its mosaic centre, I nevertheless, resentful prick though I am, became extremely helpful and began to talk persuasively to this tall-necked young girl with her over-sweet perfume and delightful red hair-tie on the blackest, raven, almost blue hair (which I would be so willing to bury my face in and adore) - began to talk about modern theories of grieving and about her mothers inevitable jealousy that her children had their lives entirely before them (a feeling I have all too often experienced with my own daughter) whereas her life (the mother's), at least as she was probably seeing it at present, was behind her, had ended, and badly at that, or at least unluckily, with her husband's death. Vikram Griffiths started into 
Men of Harlech
. And the only thing to do, I suggested with the sort of wisdom that comes from knowing absolutely nothing about a situation, was to be patient: her mother would no doubt come out of this with time, life would force her to.

We were talking under the girl's yellow umbrella while I resentfuly tried to come to terms with the idea that her invitation to walk along under its dripping rim had had nothing to do with any plans to seduce me, let alone shag me rotten before the evening was out. Perhaps your mother will even take another husband, I announced thoughtfully. I had as much chance of sleeping with Nicoletta, I thought, as of taking the Madonna from behind. It was as easy and as difficult as that. But Nicoletta said that that was impossible, her mother could never love anybody else. She could never love anybody after her father. With whom she had been very much in love. To the exclusion of all others, she added, unprompted. I asked her her mother's age, and she said forty-five. Then, responding rather well I think to the-nth recurrence of this number, almost as if it were an old ailment I had finally learnt to put up with, I laughed out loud, even good-heartedly. I laughed and said, Perhaps I would marry Nicoletta's mother myself,
we were the same age, after all
, and instinctively the two of us, man and girl, squeezed each other's arms a little harder and exchanged entirely friendly smiles in the street-lit gloom of the umbreEa as Vikram Griffiths now stopped the group at a crossroads surveying blocks of flats to the right and, across a soaking urban highway, low industrial buildings to the left, and admitted he had no idea where he was. My mother would like you very much, Nicoletta laughed, I think, and I laughed - call me Niki, she said, everybody else does - and Vikram Griffiths said we would have to turn back. That miserable bastard at the hotel with his miserable directions! Dafydd! he shouted, then slowly sang for the girls who were learning, With the foe towards you leaping, You your valiant stance are keeping. Dafydd! And lying here now on this narrowest of divan beds, not even waiting for sleep, not even trying to masturbate, not even wondering about the Avvocato Malerba's delayed return, I am struck by the amusing fact, this very early morning of the fourth of the fifth in my forty-fifth year, that not only did a young woman offer me
her friendship
this evening, rather than her body,
her affection
, rather than her sex, but what's more that I amazingly walked along beside this young woman for almost an hour in the sifting rain, and condescended to her, discussing fashionable grief-theories and other psychoanalytical simplifications of everyday calamities, some of which I vaguely remember allusions to in the atrocious
Black Spells Magic
, not to mention the execrable
Dead Poets Society
, and even began to pretend to myself, like the infantile and
incorrigible 
romantic I am, that perhaps this gesture of friendship, of affection (complete with jesting
vis-a-vis
a possible relationship with her mother!), was somehow better or more appropriate than the gesture of straightforward sexual complicity offered by the Plottie girl (young enough to be my daughter), as if, apart from the easy good conscience that comes from talking sympathetically to another human being about their insoluble troubles, there could possibly be any use to me in the mere affection of a no more than moderately intelligent twenty-one-year-old.

BOOK: Europa
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